Sometimes things just work out the way you envision them. After making a late decision, things fell into place and I made a surgical strike to Chicago to catch Widespread Panic's Halloween show at the UIC Pavilion. Having skipped the traditional New Orleans weekend, I was determined to get my Panic 'Ween fix in somehow.

Let me start off by saying the UIC Pavilion is one helluva crappy place to see music. The sound went in waves of being truly excellent, to a shade, to boomy, but that was the least of the problems. The GA floor was way too packed making it all but impossible to get in and out of your spot - even worse than it usually is for a general admission show. No alcohol sales for a Halloween show is just unacceptable, albeit for a Wednesday night. Suffice it to say, I will never be going back to that shack again.

The band certainly tried to make the most of their surroundings. After a predictable but fun opening set from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the curtains were taken down and the stage was set up to reveal a neat little Moonscape. "Sunny rocks and funny trees" were set up around the band's equipment and even a lunar module was masking Mike Houser's spot on stage. A huge disc painted like the Earth was situated dead center above the stage recreating an Earthrise situation as seen from the moon. As the band took the stage and the lights went down, Panic's patented "star curtain" was illuminated to add the finishing touches to the transformation. Throughout the night, the lights would enhance the visual portion of the show setting up some serious moods with different colors and lights bouncing off the "rocks" and suspended Earth. As for costumes, only John Bell was dressed up - face painted black and dressed as Marvin the Martian.

Set I: Porch Song >> Little Lily > Dear Mr. Fantasy, Henry Parsons Died, Diner > Blue Indian, Love For Sale, Thought Sausage

Set II: Coconut*, Joe's Garage* > Wild Thing* > Joe's Garage* > Ball of Confusion* > Drums+ > Cortez the Killer > Ain't Life Grand > Imitation Leather Shoes

E: Pilgrims, Traveling Light

It was easy to predict the "Porch Song" opener - Wednesday night we would certainly be "living the moontime." The Porch was high- energy as always and got the crowd electrified for the show immediately. Although the stage was set to reflect the tranquility and silence you can probably only encounter on the moon, "Porch Song" set the stage for a show that was the complete opposite. Pure, unadulterated, nasty Panic from start to finish. "Porch Song" opened up to a typical WSP jam that is simple in its foundations but far-flung in its breath.

The jam twisted around Houser's leads with, for the moment, crystal sound. The band was markedly tight and the jam came off their instruments easily and smoothly. Pretty much the whole first set went along like this - straight-up Widespread Panic, tight playing from all members, dancing and grinning in the crowd. The segues were terrific in the opening triumvirate with a standard "Little Lilly" filling in between the blistering "Porch" and early mayhem of "Dear Mr. Fantasy."

The real stand out for me in the first set was the "Henry Parsons Died." This is a song that I feel I've heard so many times that I usually let out an internal groan when it starts up. But lately it's been knocking me on my ass and the Halloween version ensured that I'll never groan again. Full-frontal-lobotomy Widespread is what has become of this Bloodkin cover. As it usually does, the middle jam built and built driven by Dave Schools' "The Other One"- themed bass lines and whirling Houser riffs. Where the theme usually breaks, I was expecting the jam to simmer and make way for JB's entrance on the last verse. Instead, the band zigged where they usually zag and elevated to the next level. They entered the "segue jam" netherworld where you find yourself elbowing the guy next to you saying things like "sounds like they're going into..." - but then I realized that "Parsons" was never finished. More and more intensity was heaped onto the wall of sound, blood dripping from my ears until finally, minutes-that-seem-like-an-eternity later they detach from the rocket boosters and re-enter the calm orbit of "Henry Parsons." Sweet, sweet stuff that really exemplifies why if you have little expectations, making a silly 24-hour jaunt to see Panic mid-week is almost always worth it.

"Diner" was its usually guitar-flavored mayhem with JB sounding syrupy with his vocals. Like all the segues in the first set, the one out of "Diner" was right-on excellent. "Blue Indian" is a song I have not yet grown tired of hearing, especially when I'm jammed in on the floor of a Halloween show with plenty of friends around. The show was certainly a-rocking one up to this point, but I think I wasn't alone in wondering if we'd get any of the usual Halloween silliness to keep things interesting or if this show would stay on the middle- of-the-road path for the rest of the night. That question was answered as the band busted out it's first new cover of the night - "Love for Sale" by the Talking Heads. Fairly straightforward near- punk rocking from the T. Heads, but a fun tune, nonetheless. Unfortunately, I thought the band butchered it (for lack of a better word) - particularly JB who navigated the lyrics and changes like a guy who gets up in the pitch-black of the night to take a whizz and stubs his toe painfully two or three times before finally relieving himself. Too bad - skipped the last verse completely. I imagine that one will not make it back out of the box in the near future. The set finished in strong-mediocre fashion with the nasty, 6-headed funk of "Thought Sausage."

The set break went pretty quickly and additional mics were set up to accommodate what would no doubt be a bevy from the Dirty Dozen. Sure enough, out of the gate, the full regalia of horns took their spot and the band busted into the crowd favorite "Coconuts." I couldn't help but remembering that this tune, which is now semi- regular in the "rotation," was played only on Halloween for the better part of the '90's. Seemed fitting to play it on their first true Halloween show in a couple of years. I think the horns really enhance this tune from party-song to all-out rager. Great way to get out of the gate.

The horns stayed on stage and I think many people were waiting for the obligatory "Christmas Katie" or "Weight of the World." Instead, the crowd was silenced by the beginning of a song they certainly had never heard before (and most did not recognize). The band was dead on, though, and soon it became clear to most that the band had selected, beyond our ability to reason why, Zappa's "Joe's Garage" (from album of same name) to play this Halloween. I have to say they really nailed it - the full band and horns completely in synch and JB wailing away gleefully - and midway through the song they stopped on a dime, (whiplash, anyone?) and flew into the rock-and-roll classic "Wild Thing." The crowd went nuts as the band surged over the quintessential rock riffs. Each chorus was accompanied by the entire crowd - "...I think I love you, but I want to know for sure!!" Too much fun. When they flipped into a tiny jam and brought it back into "Joe's Garage" I was a bit confounded by their dexterity and found myself, once again, shaking my head in amazement at what the band had pulled off with both grace and ass-kicking, Panic-style rock and roll.

"Joe's Garage," with horns still completely in tow, made its way into yet another "I've-never-heard-this" opening. "Ball of Confusion" is a Temptations cover the band has played once or twice in their long history and took everyone in the house (that had any inkling of that history) by complete surprise. They had busted out a long-shelved original instrumental on Saturday in New Orleans, and this time of year anything and everything is possible, but this?? The band was on a roll, and once again - the f'in nailed it. The only version of this song I've heard is a crappy recording of the last time they played it - Halloween from 1989. With the horns filling in, this funky, off-kilter tune was brilliant. The whole band was locked into a tight groove that had me shaking and smiling and absorbing all at once. Tricks, treats, rock and roll, we were getting the full treatment for sure. I should mention that somewhere in there (I think it was right before they made it into "Ball of Confusion") Jojo laid down an unmistakable vamp on "Love The One You're With" - the doo-doo- doo part from the CSN classic. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that "Ball of Confusion" is this wild planet we're living on and never has this been more true than these days (National Guard in the airport greeting you at security checkpoints?). But for Halloween, we were transported to the moon and looked down on what seemed to be a simply beautiful "ball" that made perfect sense from out vantage point.

Drums ensued and was marked by the appearance of DDBB's drummer, Terence Higgens who started on the drum kit and moved over to percussion midway through the session. I seriously can't stand the drums portion of the show, but it is made so much better when there is the freshness of a guest sitting in. The denouement of drums brought Dave back out to get serious on the bass. Schools, as usual, had been ruling it all night on the Modulus and now was his chance to take center stage. Deftly setting up loops he soloed with himself as the rhythm section held bay. The trio smoothly switched up-tempo over and over (while the bass loop kept droning along) as Dave sizzled the strings into submission. The tripped out improvisation made way for heavy teases on "We Want the Funk" and others. Finally, the tempo was slowed down and the early, recognizable hints of some Neil Young were evident as the rest of the band took the stage.

I caught Gov't Mule lay down a heart-wrenching version of "Cortez the Killer" at the Roseland a week or two back that will forever set the standard for versions of that song and maybe all Neil Young covers. Panic eased smoothly into yet another bust out, giving their try at this epitome of musical intensity. It was a good shot and the song absolutely wailed, I thought. It didn't touch that Mule version though, which is still vivid and fresh in my mind. JB seemed to have trouble with the lyrics which gave the whole thing a mistimed feel. But even that couldn't wipe the smile off my face as each musician submersed themselves in the throbbing flow of the tune. Four solos by JB, Jojo, Schools and Houser bracketed each verse. Each solo seemed to build off the other, each climax inching just a bit higher before subsiding for the next round. Man, I could really see this one poking it's head out on tour every once in a while.

Pretty wild how they just slung 4 straight new ones on us like that. With their "load blown" and the audience truly satiated, it was time to get back to the mind numbing "cuddling" that we've come to expect from these guys. "Ain't Life Grand" > "Imitation Leather Shoes" was great fun and plenty of skull-rattling head slamming taboot. More of the seen-it-50-times-don't-mind-if-it's-50- more variety and a powerfully, undoubtedly PANIC way to end a monster set.

The encore was more Widespread Panic "standards" the always-chilling "Pilgrims" followed by the always-jarring "Traveling Light" showed off both the beauty and power of the band. Two "traveling" themes songs, signaling the landing of our lunar exploration back on Earth. It was a great trip, plenty of new discoveries and a lot of fun in a weightless environment. Thanks to those "few good cats" for helping us pass the night...

Aaron Stein
From New Yawk to Chicago
It's The Only Way To Fly
Go See Live Music!

[Published on: 11/2/01]

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